I completed my secondary schooling at a local comprehensive, which had a wide catchment area and accepted students from all backgrounds. Like every kid going through the education funnel there were parts of school life that I detested (growing up can be quite rubbish, can’t it?), but I speak for my inner nerd when I say that I loved school itself. In comparison to the separate grammar school experiences of my sister and best friend, I consider myself extremely lucky to have gone to an institution that placed value on the individual rather than the grade. This may have had a lot to do with the school’s Christian philosophy, but I think it was mainly down to many of the teachers wanting pupils to find their niche and develop as well-functioning members of society.
I have loved writing since I was at primary school, and it was an easy choice to pick predominantly Humanities-based subjects that had plenty of essay writing involved. I loved my English A-Level course: I was introduced to Michael Frayn and Arthur Miller, developed an undying love for Chaucer’s Tales, and got to re-read Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, one of my favourite novels, while taking a luxurious amount of time to analyse nearly every page. During the final year of my English degree I was reading up to three novels a week, and remember being told by people to savour the opportunity as it would prove difficult to achieve even half that amount in the same time once away from the bright lights and red bricks of campus.
I am therefore lost for an appropriate reaction to the news that the “Rt Hon” Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, is pretty much annihilating English literature from the core English GCSE. “English” will instead revolve around grammatical correctness and right or wrong answers. This scenario destroys what it was/is that I loved about English as a subject: for me, it provided a relief during the relentless grind of examination from the age of 14/15. I found I was able to write much less rigidly than in my other subjects, as there wasn’t the requirement to relentlessly check fact and accuracy. English is subjective, fluid, and encourages imaginative thought. Take away the literary aspect of the course and you are taking away the whole point of the subject, not to mention a generation’s engagement with the likes of Orwell, Austen, and Sassoon. It denies pupils freedom of thought and the chance to have an individual reading that can’t be declared utterly, one hundred per-cent wrong. But this is precisely why Gove cannot understand the value of studying literature: it does not fit in with his desire to reduce everything to a final mark and a table of results. Imagination cannot be measured in numbers.
The official party line is somewhat different, of course. Gove claims that it will be schools’ choice; English Literature is still being offered as an optional extra. What he does not publicly acknowledge is that it is unlikely to be a viable option for schools struggling to meet the requirements of Gove’s league tables. It will be these schools that most rigidly adhere to his prescribed curriculum of sciences and language, and it is these schools in which inspiration and engagement is so crucial. Yet students will be denied the opportunity to study so-called ‘soft’ subjects – drama, art, and now literature – and will be straitjacketed by an education of facts and figures. This can only serve to better demonstrate this country’s social difference, if not widen the gap further.
Applications for the 2012 university intake were in sharp decline after the rise of tuition fees to £9,000, with Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences the hardest hit subjects. There is an increased desire to choose a vocational subject or one that will lead to a well-paid job after university, which I can understand – I studied English and am still looking for a ‘graduate’ job eighteen months down the line. What’s more, the rate for my limited sessions with a subject tutor work out at roughly at £50/hour under the new fees (I paid around £17/hour). But despite my difficulties and comparatively worse (with science students) value-for-money when it came to contact time, I wouldn’t change my choice. The many books that I read, a large proportion of which I would probably not have otherwise come across, have stayed and will continue to stay with me for much longer than the time it took to get in and out of the exam hall.
One of Gove’s ministers spoke of these changes as “rebalancing the curriculum towards high-value subjects” (my italics). This snobbery – to what I suppose would be referred to as “low-value subjects”, then, minister? – suggests anything outside maths, science, computing and language is a waste of time. Something that always sticks with me is the story of a boy from my school, who wasn’t especially academic and didn’t particularly enjoy being in the classroom. He unexpectedly joined in with the vaguely uncool school eco-club set up by one of the teachers, which included giving up weekends to build a wildlife habitat on the school’s grounds. He left school at 16, but was awarded at our GCSE prize-giving for his contribution to the club and, we were told, had since begun training as a landscape gardener. My school allowed and encouraged people to find what interested and excited them. I’m not saying that it succeeded every time; some students are likely to have a very different perspective to mine. What cannot be denied is that there was plenty of room for individuality, and it is this that Gove, with his rote-learning and no second chances, appears desperate to stamp out.